Welcome to Foreign Policy‘s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Washington for a state visit, Pakistan mourns the loss of dozens of its citizens in a tragic shipwreck off Greece, and authorities struggle to rein in ethnic violence in the Indian state of Manipur.
Sign up to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Wednesday.
Sign up to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Wednesday.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has arrived in Washington for a three-day state visit, during which he will meet with U.S. President Joe Biden. Recent conversations with U.S. officials suggest the core focus of Modi’s trip will be security, technology, trade, and people-to-people cooperation. New agreements will be made in the areas of defense, semiconductors and space.
Modi’s trip marks just the third time that Washington has accorded an Indian leader the honor of a state visit. It underscores the strength of U.S.-India partnership, as well as how far it has come. The two countries still face challenges, from bureaucratic hurdles to trade tensions. But these obstacles haven’t prevented their ties from deepening in relatively little time–a reality Biden aims to acknowledge through the state visit.
Sixty years ago, then-Indian President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan traveled to Washington for the first state visit by an Indian leader, on the invitation of then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy. At the time, bilateral relations were warm: At the beginning of the Cold War, U.S. concerns about communist China prompted Washington to strengthen partnership with New Delhi. The United States backed India during its 1962 border war with China.
But in 1971, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon’s decision to pursue normalization with China brought the United States closer to Pakistan, India’s rival. That contributed to New Delhi’s decision that year to ink a friendship treaty with Moscow. As a result, the 1970s and 1980s were a grim period for U.S.-India relations. They experienced a boost when Indian liberalization reforms created opportunities for trade in the 1990s–until Washington sanctioned New Delhi when it became a nuclear weapons state in 1998.
Only in the 2000s did U.S.-India relations enjoy a true renaissance, amid converging interests: first over the threat of international terrorism, and then over China’s growing clout. The bilateral partnership has since rapidly intensified. Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and along the India-China border have crystallized the urgency of cooperating to counter a common threat. Growing Indian American communities and deeper business relationships have helped to increase trust between Washington and New Delhi.
In recent years, the United States and India have ramped up arms sales, intelligence sharing, and military-to-military cooperation. Technology, clean energy, and higher education have also become fast-growing spaces for cooperation. The scope of this cooperation has also expanded, from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean and even to the Middle East–through their membership in the so-called I2U2 grouping, which also includes Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
To be fair, there is still some mistrust between India and the United States dating back to the Cold War. Many Indians decried the slow U.S. response to India’s catastrophic COVID-19 surge in 2021, with some wondering if Russia was still India’s most dependable partner. But such incidents are anomalies. The delay may have been bureaucratic, as Biden was just recently in office and there were many India-related senior posts vacant. )
Despite the many constraints in the U.S. India relationship, the growth of U.S. India ties has been remarkable. India’s democracy has faltered–a concern for the Biden administration, which emphasizes the importance of shared values. India declines to be a formal U.S. ally, opting to safeguard its strategic autonomy. Washington maintains a partnership with Islamabad and New Delhi has a relationship with Moscow.
The two countries have so far navigated these challenges with a combination of flexibility, creativity, and the U.S. willingness to let hard interests prevail over values-based considerations–to the frustration of human rights activists and other critics of India.
Modi’s state visit is poised to overcome another constraint: misplaced expectations. Heady talk is now part of the relationship, which U.S. officials call the most important of the 21st century, and it often raises expectations for deliverables that don’t materialize at high-level summits. The two sides finalized a nuclear cooperation deal in 2008, even though India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The agreement was seen as a landmark for the relationship, yet they have not signed another similar one since.
However, this week will bring many agreements, including some that have remained elusive, such as a long-rumored armed drones package and unprecedented defense technology transfers. There may even be forward movement on addressing U.S. liability concerns that have inhibited the implementation of the nuclear cooperation deal. Modi’s visit comes at a moment when both countries are experiencing some of their worst tensions with China in decades, underscoring the strategic imperatives of their partnership.
Much has changed for the U.S.-India relationship since Radhakrishnan came to Washington in June 1963. The relationship suffered many years of hardship before it evolved into the stable strategic partnership that is supported in both capitals today.
Pakistani tragedy at sea. The fate of migrants aboard an overloaded boat that went down off the Greek coast last week has been revealed in horrific detail. The boat carried people from Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, as well as many Pakistanis; local media outlets report that as many as 300 Pakistani nationals died when the ship capsized.
All those on the boat were starving and thirsty before it sank. But according to survivor accounts provided to Greek coast guard officials and leaked to the Guardian, the Pakistanis on board “were forced below deck,” where they were maltreated by crew members when they tried to leave the vulnerable area.
The tragedy underscores the desperate lengths that some Pakistanis will go to find better opportunities at a moment of severe economic stress. In the wake of the shipwreck, Islamabad has cracked down on human traffickers, leading to 10 arrests in Karachi and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, although few details have emerged about their connection to the trawler.
Violence in Manipur. Nearly two months after ethnic clashes broke out in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, the unrest between the majority Meitei and minority Kuki communities continues. It has displaced around 50,000 people, and more than 100 people have died. Authorities have struggled to rein in violence in the state; last Thursday, a mob burned the home of a senior federal government official, Rajkumar Ranjan Singh.
The Manipur government, controlled by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has taken heat from locals for not doing enough to stop the unrest. Some Kukis have accused state officials of siding with the Meiteis. The federal government has deployed 40,000 troops to stabilize the situation and attempted to broker talks, with little success. This violence serves as a stark reminder of India’s faultlines, and the struggles that state has to overcome them.
In Foreign Policy, Sushant Singh argues that the violence in Manipur will have ripple effects on India’s disputed border with China–and beyond.
Bollywood is known to generate controversy, but rarely enough to prompt cities outside India to ban all of its films. Yet that’s what’s happened in two major cities in Nepal this week in response to Adipurush, a movie inspired by the Hindu epic Ramayana–and one of the most expensive films ever made in India. The film describes Sita, the wife of Lord Ram, as “India’s daughter.” But Hindus in Nepal believe she was born in the Nepali city of Janakpur.
The mayor of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, ordered theaters to stop playing Bollywood films until the line is changed. The mayor of Pokhara followed suit. Adipurush has been controversial in India as well, with critics lambasting it for being indecent and trivializing some characters from the Ramayana. Interestingly, several leaders of India’s BJP are thanked in the film’s closing credits.
Subjecting sacred ancient religious literature to contemporary artistic interpretations can be sensitive. In the case of Adipurush, it’s had cross-border consequences. On Sunday, one of the film’s co-writers conceded that the “India’s daughter” line will be amended.
More From FP on Modi’s State Visit
Former Pakistani diplomat Maleeha Lodhi, writing in Dawn, laments how the government in Islamabad hasn’t formally committed to holding parliamentary elections–currently scheduled for no later than mid-October–on time. “Any effort to play with the election date beyond what is constitutionally stipulated would be disastrous for the country,” she warns.
In the Daily Mirror, scholar Ahilan Kadirgamar argues that International Monetary Fund assistance is not the solution to Sri Lanka’s economic ills. He writes that “the hemorrhage will continue if we keep up the austerity policies and do not provide stimulus in the economy through state assistance to key sectors.”
An editorial in Kuensel details the policy challenges posed by street hawking in Bhutan. It calls for a response that emphasizes “the need for a comprehensive and practical solution that balances the socioeconomic realities of the hawkers with the concerns of public safety, urban planning, and formal businesses.”
The post Modi’s State Visit Aims to Cement U.S.-India Partnership appeared first on Foreign Policy.